Question: "What does it mean to repent and do the first works (Revelation 2:5)?"
Answer: In Revelation 2:5, the apostle John records Jesus exhorting the church in Ephesus to “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (NKJV). If they fail to heed His words, Jesus gives a warning: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (verse 5).
Paul had written a letter to the church in Ephesus roughly 30 years prior to Jesus’ letter. At that point in the Ephesians’ growth, Paul commended them for their love (Ephesians 1:15–16). In Revelation 2:1–7, Jesus also commends the Ephesians for some things: 1) their toil and perseverance, 2) their intolerance of evil people, 3) their discernment amongst false apostles, and 4) their endurance for Christ (Revelation 2:2–3). Jesus’ issue with the Ephesians is that they “have forsaken the love [they] had at first” (Revelation 2:4). The church at Ephesus was a hard-working, faithful church, but they were lacking in love.
In response to this abandonment of their first love, Jesus exhorts them to “repent and do the first works.” Repentance is confirmed in the follow-through; repentance is followed by reformation. John the Baptist stressed the need for action in his preaching: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Jesus points to the early days of the church in Ephesus and bade His people remember the service they had accomplished and the love they had expressed—and then do those things again.
There is also a relationship between works and love here. The apostle John attests to this reality in 1 John 5:3: “This is love for God: to keep his commands.” This echoes Jesus’ words in John 14:23: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (ESV). It seems that, as one grows in love for Christ, he or she will desire to obey even more. In Revelation 2, Jesus exhorts the Ephesians to do the works they did before, encouraging the love they once had for God.
These “first works” aren’t defined in the text. Jesus could be referring to their past zeal in maintaining pure doctrine or their eagerness to love their neighbors as themselves. Whatever the specifics, Jesus wanted the Ephesians to do the first works, which would encourage them to return to their first love.
What does it mean, then, to “repent” and do the first works? Repent, in its most literal sense, simply means “to change one’s mind.” A change of mind often results in a change of attitude, emotion, and action. This meaning can be seen clearly in Acts 2. Peter is presenting Jesus as the rightful Messiah, King of Israel. His hearers are comprised of the very people who had crucified the Lord via the Romans. Peter tells them they needed to repent, or change their mind, and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Their repentance involved changing their minds about Jesus being a mere man and their own need to be forgiven. Happily, about 3,000 people repented and were saved that day (Acts 2:41).
In Revelation 2:5, Jesus exhorts the Ephesians to repent, and that change of mind would lead to a change of attitude. The follow-through would be a return to their first works, encouraging their love for God. Jesus’ message to the church of Ephesus should be a warning to all of us. We can do great works and persevere through trials and still lose sight of loving God. Saying or doing the right thing is meaningless without love (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). We must not forsake our first love, and we must continue doing the things that encourage our love for God.